As Reformed Christians we have historically been those who seek to worship the God of Scripture in a scriptural way by doing what He commands. Since Biblical religion is theocentric and not anthropocentric, worship is about what God wills for Himself in terms of our glorifying Him with “the glory due His Name” (Ps. 29:2).
Much ink has been spilled on this topic over the centuries and in recent years. One aspect of worship, however, that does not seem to get much attention is the attitude of worship. So much energy is expended on proving the mechanics of worship (what may or may not be done in public worship) that the spirit of worship is often lost. As those zealous to worship our “jealous God” (Ex. 20:5) only as He commands, we must also seek to do this in the mood, tenor, and attitude that the Scriptures teach. Since the Bible says that in worship we enter the presence of the God who is “holy, holy, holy” (Isa. 6:3; Rev. 4:8), and on His terms, the attitude of such an encounter with God should reflect this truth: reverence.
Old vs. New Covenant Worship?
When we teach that worship is a reverential approach to God, we as Reformed churches are at odds with our feel-good, psychologically therapeutic, and affirming culture. Unfortunately, we live in a day in which “as goes the culture, so goes the church.” For example, our culture is infatuated with therapy and self-help, but not in a confrontational, “judgmental” way. The result is wrapping up therapy in the entertaining garb of Dr. Phil. This has then been transferred into the church by means of informal, upbeat worship that resembles a therapy session instead of a meeting with God. The result is that all too often this merging of the culture and the church has caused professing Christians to believe that worship in the Old Testament was formal and reverent, while worship in the New Testament is spontaneous and exuberant. This is far from the truth.
Even a cursory glance in the New Testament book of Hebrews teaches us that the attitude of New Covenant Christian worship is to be both bold and reverent. We are to “with confidence draw near to the throne of grace” (Heb. 4:16). This confidence, however, is not out of arrogance. It is a confidence in which we, with our weaknesses, temptations, and sins (Heb. 4:15), come boldly because “we have a great high priest” (Heb. 4:14). Our boldness is in Christ. Our boldness is that because Christ “was heard because of His reverence” (Heb. 5:7), we too will be heard by the Father. Our boldness is that because Christ “offered Himself without blemish to God” (Heb. 9:15), we can now worship.
Hebrews, therefore, teaches that our attitude is boldness in Christ, not “reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:28–29). The God who was worshipped in the Old Testament as a “consuming fire” (Deut. 4:24) is the same God who is a consuming fire in the New. This reverence, or, “fear of the Lord” as the Scriptures call it, is even one of the great benefits of the New Covenant, which the LORD promised to place in the hearts of His people for their good (Jer. 32:38–41).
Because worship concerns the very heart of Christian faith and piety, we must be driven to Scripture alone, and not to culture, in matters of what we do in worship as well as how we do it attitudinally. As Reformed churches we can all too easily fall into the trap of “doing the liturgy” or being so caught up in the “regulative principle” that we forget how and why we are to worship. This is in contrast to much Evangelical worship, which sees worship as true based on how it makes one feel. As one author puts it,
For the modern evangelical, worship is defined exclusively in terms of the individual’s experience. Worship, then, is not about adoring God but about being nourished with religious feelings, so much so that the worshipper has become the object of worship.
On the island of Patmos, while worshipping, John saw the significance of worship as the curtain of heaven was pulled back. He was shown that worship was a joining with myriads of heavenly hosts and saints at the throne of the Almighty (cf. Rev. 4-5). And thus, our subjective feelings, whether over the mood of worship or the aesthetic quality of worshipping in a cathedral, do not give worship its value. Worship, like faith, is only measured by its object. When our hearts delight in worshipping God, when we focus on His glory, on what He wants, then we will be blessed by worship.
A Meeting With God
In order to communicate to the world, and even to many professing Christians, why our worship is so different with its attitude of reverence, we must grasp and promote that worship is a meeting with the Triune God. It is no trivial matter for which we assemble. Worship in the Bible is a meeting between sinful people and a holy God, between servants and a King. To be in the presence of this all-holy King is to keep silent: “the LORD is in His holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before Him” (Hab. 2:20). To be in the presence of the one true God is to stand on “holy ground” (Ex. 3:5).
What is happening, in Biblical terms, is that we, as the LORD’s “treasured possession among all peoples,” the “kingdom of priests,” the “holy nation,” assemble to “encamp before the mountain” (Ex. 19:5,6,2). We are meeting with the Creator of the universe and the Redeemer of His people.
In the terms of the New Testament we do not come to a physical mountain, but,
…to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel (Heb. 12:22-24). Worship is not a time for “hangin’ out with Jesus,” being a part of a great social event, or having our numerous “felt needs” met as consumers. Instead, it is time in which the infinite, all-holy God of the universe condescends to meet us in grace and the power of the Holy Spirit through the means of grace.
We see this illumined for us in the terms the Bible uses. First, there is the general Hebrew term ‘abodah (“service”), which comes from the same root as ‘ebed (“slave, servant;” Ex. 3:12, 21:1–6, 23:25; Pss. 89:3, 20, 116:16). This is the more general term of the two words in the Hebrew Bible for worship. It views worship as servants of the great King who come to offer Him the service He desires and deserves. verb latreuo and its noun latria (“service, worship;” Acts 7:42, 24:14, 26:7; Rom. 1:9, 2:37, 9:4, 12:1, 15:16; Phil. 3:3; Heb. 8:5, 9:9, 10:2; Rev. 7:15, 22:3).
More specific to “worship” are the Hebrew histahawa (“prostrate”) and the Greek proskunein (“to fall on the ground in adoration”). Whereas the Hebrew term ‘ebed is used for “serving” the LORD, histahawa is used of the cultus proper, the worship offered to the LORD in accordance with His Word (Gen. 24:52, 27:29, 49:23; 2 Chron. 7:3, 29:29); while proskunein is used to express the honor given to God (Matt. 4:9–10, 14:33; Mark 15:19; Jn. 4:21–24; Acts 10:25).
The most specific word is the Greek verb leitourgein and its corresponding noun, leitourgia. This term is used generally in the ancient world for any “service to the community or state; yet it is the specific word used for the official liturgical acts of worship in the Septuagint and New Testament (Ex. 28:35, 43; 1 Sam. 2:11, 18, 3:1; Luke 1:23; Acts 13:2; 2 Cor. 9:12; Phil. 2:30; Heb. 9:21, 10:11).
As the worshipping community, we come to serve the Lord by bowing and kneeling (Ps. 95:6). It is in that posture that we are to “lift up” our eyes “to the LORD our God until He has mercy upon us” (Ps. 123:1–2); we are to “lift up” our hands “to the holy place” (Ps. 134:2). These postures are the outward way we show our inward attitude of utter dependence upon the LORD in worship. We bow down knowing that we deserve nothing; we lift our eyes because it is from heaven that we seek “grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16); we lift our hands because we embrace the LORD and His promises by faith alone.
Because both Testaments say that worship is a meeting with God, and not simply a time of fellowship, we receive His service to us in worship through the means of grace, the preaching of the Holy Gospel, and administration of the Holy Sacraments (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 65). Thus, our liturgy is supposed to cause some sense of awkwardness in us! If it doesn’t, then we need to be worried. We are still sinners and in worship we approach the great King. In worship He meets our truest and deepest needs, giving us the spiritual therapy we need: freedom of conscience, forgiveness, assurance, absolution.
A Break From the World
As we come to meet with God, we are doing something that is counter-cultural. As such, our reverential service to the Lord is a break from our worldly “norm.” Worship is meant to be a time that is set aside from our worldly labors, cares, and toils. As we assemble, we do so in a mood that gathers our thoughts and sets them aside for the worship event: “casting all your anxieties upon Him, because He cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7). We come to publicly set aside our anxieties, our worries, and our stresses to give ourselves wholly to God, laying our lives down as a “living sacrifice” (Rom. 12:1).
We watch television all week; we listen to sound byte news all week; we are bombarded with the visual media all week; we are taught to be consumers all week. We need worship to be different. We need it to restore to us a sense of sanity, a sense of what the world and life is really about. We hear “the buzz” all around us, enticing us, calling us, distracting us. Worship is meant to break that tyranny, not feed it. Listen to how the ancient document, the Apostolic Constitutions, describe the worship of the church:
…let the deacon oversee the people, that nobody may whisper, nor slumber, nor laugh, nor nod; for all ought in the church to stand wisely, and soberly, and attentively, having their attention fixed upon the word of the Lord…let some of them attend upon the oblation of the Eucharist, ministering to the Lord’s body with fear. Let others of them watch the multitude, and keep them silent… After this let the sacrifice follow, the people standing, and praying silently; and when the oblation has been made, let every rank by itself partake of the Lord’s body and precious blood in order, and approach with reverence and holy fear, as to the body of their king.
That is the worship we need. That is the break our hearts long for so desperately.
We, as historic Protestants, need to capture the attention and affections of our culture by presenting a worship in which people participate in something larger than themselves. True worship, although in time, at a place, and with people, is not bound to any time, place, or people. Instead, it is the historical outworking of the pattern of heavenly worship. This is why in all historic liturgies we find the sursum corda (Latin, “Lift up your hearts”). We lift up our hearts to the Lord because He dwells in heaven, in eternity; therefore we must worship Him there by going there in our worship.
It is while our enemies, the world, the flesh, and the devil, surround us during the week, that we cry out, “To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul” (Ps. 25:1). It is when we are downcast by the ways of the world that we come to worship to say, “Gladden the soul of your servant, for to you, O Lord, do I lift up my soul” (Ps. 86:4). It is when it seems that there is no purpose in this life and that we have no direction that we attend public worship and say, “Make me know the way I should go, for to you I lift up my soul” (Ps. 143:8). It is when we sin and stray like lost sheep that we pray with the corporate assembly, “Let us lift up our hearts and hands to God in heaven” (Lam. 3:41).
And so, reverence creates transcendence, which produces mystery. And mystery creates wonder. This interplay between reverence (the fear of the Lord) and wonder, and everything in between, is expressed by one author in these words:
True worship of God springs from our inability to answer two simple questions posed by a biblical understanding of the fear of the Lord: (1) O God, who is like you in power, righteousness, mighty deeds, and in pardoning sin (Ps. 71:18–19; Mic. 7:18-20)? and (2) what are woman and man that God should look down from heaven and care for them and lift them up to sit with princes (Pss. 8:4, 113:5–8)?
Too many of the visitors (whether truly seekers or merely tourists) in our churches have been captured or captivated by innovations in worship (drama, dance, individual expressions of piety such as “special music,” multimedia, etc.). We must introduce them to the majesty and mystery of God.
We are meeting with God. To receive His ministry to us, to break the tyrannical pattern of the world, and to join in the eschatological chorus, we must worship with “reverence and godly fear, for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:28–29).
Reverence in the Liturgy
From the beginning to the end of Reformed worship, this reverential attitude is evidenced as the congregation assembles with a marked seriousness and purpose for why things are done the way they are done. This is evident in several ways in classic Reformed worship. Many Reformed churches begin worship with a time of silent reflection to meditate upon entering into the presence of God. This causes in both believers and unbelievers a sense of reverence before God so that they will seek forgiveness and grace in Jesus Christ. As Moses said to the Israelites as they crossed the Sea, “you only have to be silent” (Ex. 14:14).
In all the historic Reformed liturgies this reverence is exercised in the time of corporate confession of sins and receiving the promise of the gospel in the absolution/ declaration of forgiveness. In the singing of the Psalms is expressed this reverence by taking upon the lips the very words of the Lord, with all the range of emotions, especially lament and trust in the Lord. When the Creed is recited we reverently take our place in the great “cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1), acknowledging that we did not discover the truth of the Christian Faith, but that it discovered us. In hearing the Word of God read and preached, the people are to do this “with godly fear” (Westminster Confession of Faith, XXI.5.). We sit at the foot of the heavenly mountain (Heb. 12:22–26) and hear the very voice of Christ. Finally, this reverential attitude is culminated in the reception of the very elements the Lord gave on the night in which he was betrayed in the Lord’s Supper, whether sitting at tables, kneeling, or coming forward to receive the bread and wine “from the hand of the minister” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 75).
Rev. Daniel Hyde is the Pastor of Oceanside United Reformed Church in Oceanside, California.